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Combine fires: a $20 million avoidable problem

Preventative measures sidestep or minimize fire threat.

A $20 million problem resides in combine engine compartments, warns John Shutske of the University of Wisconsin.

Most combine fires start in the engine compartment, he explains. These fires appear to be on the rise, possibly due to the increased age of combines as a result of lower new harvester sales since 2013.

The $20 million in property losses each year from combine and tractor fires doesn’t include the cost of lost time and downed crops during the harvest season, Shutske adds. “The fires also cause 40 to 50 serious injuries each year, and occasionally a person is killed because of a farm machinery fire.”

The good news is that combine fires are mostly avoidable by taking the following preventive measures. If a fire does erupt, the damage it inflicts can be minimized if you are equipped to deal with a fire.

Prevention Before Harvest

Use a pressure washer to remove “all caked-on grease, oil, and crop residue,” Shutske urges.

Pay particular attention to engine and hydrostatic pump parts during this cleaning because about 70% of all machinery fires start in this area. A clean engine also runs cooler and operates more efficiently.

Other prevention tips include:

  • Inspect the entire electrical system on a combine, paying close attention to components that draw heavy loads such as starter motors or heating-cooling systems. Always replace frayed wiring or worn connectors.
  • Mount two fully charged ABC-rated fire extinguishers on the combine. Locate a 10-pound extinguisher in the cab and mount a 20-pound unit on the combine at ground level.
  • Keep ABC-rated extinguishers in the tractor (pulling the grain cart) or trucks or other vehicles working in the field.
  • Use only fire extinguishers with UL approval, Shutske notes.
  • Take all extinguishers to a professional to have them checked once a year.
  • Any extinguisher that has been partially discharged must be fully recharged before it’s used again. During even a brief discharge, the tiny dry chemical particles will create a small gap in the internal seal of the extinguisher valve. This tiny opening will cause any remaining pressure to leak out in a few hours or days.
  • Mount a shovel on the combine to use to put out small residue fires. If the fire takes off, back away.
  • Attach a chain to the combine frame that is long enough to drag in the dirt. This will discharge static electricity generated by the operation of the combine. Static charges have the potential to ignite dry chaff and harvest residue.

Prevention During Harvest

At least once a day, use compressed air or a leaf blower to blow chaff, leaves, and other crop residue from the combine, paying particular attention to the engine compartment.

  • Clear off any residue wrapped around bearings, belts, and other moving parts.
  • Never refuel a combine with the engine running. Shutske recommends turning off the engine and waiting 15 minutes, which allows it to cool down. This reduces the risk that spilled fuel will volatilize and ignite.
  • Walk around the harvester at least once a day to check for overheating bearings or damage to the engine’s exhaust system.
  • During your inspection, if you “notice any leaking fuel or oil hoses, fittings, or metal lines, make sure to repair or replace them immediately.”

If a Fire Erupts

If a combine or tractor catches fire:

  • Turn off the engine.
  • Immediately leave the combine.
  • Call 911 and provide the exact location of the fire.
  • Use an extinguisher to direct extinguishing material at the base of the fire.

It may not be possible to put out every fire. “If it is in a difficult-to-reach area or seems out of control, don’t risk the chance of injury or even death … wait for help to arrive,” says Shutske.

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Machinery Talk